THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Census at Bethlehem’ by Pieter Bruegel

 If you are dreaming of a White Christmas, Pieter Bruegel’s deep wintered ‘Census at Bethlehem’ would definitely not fit your list. It is cold but not cheerful; snow glistens still slyly; it’s a white wonderland and yet a blue Christmas. But before we set our eyes onto the painting it is essential to grasp the aura of the artist.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born in Breda in 1525. In 1551, in congruence to the other painters of his age, he set off to Italy so as to absorb the air of the Renaissance. However the sensational grandeur of the Italian Masters failed to impress him. He breezed by the brilliant Botticelli, was unmindful of the magnificent Michelangelo and felt lethargic of the luxurious Raphael.

His search for his spark led him to take a detour to the Alps. That struck a chord and had a huge impact on him. Stunned by the snow, he swallowed the flurry landscapes and spat them onto his canvas on his return to the flat Flanders. His journey schooled his eye enhancing his vision of space and his fascination for nature. It is this enchantment that we encounter in today’s Christmas canvas.

Titled ‘The Census at Bethlehem’, Bruegel presents a prologue to the Nativity of Christ. The scene takes inspiration from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 1 to 5. ‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered in their own towns. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth to the city of David called Bethlehem….with Mary with whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child’

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